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UNC's Energy Transition Town Hall discusses sustainability in action

UNC strives to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. 

“I think it’s fair to say that this energy transition is always going to be our top priority because we recognize climate change is a giant challenge," Mike Piehler, Chief Sustainability Officer and Director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, said at an Energy Transition Town Hall last Wednesday.

Dozens of students and faculty gathered in Dey Hall for this meeting, which was hosted by the Student Government and supported by the UNC Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Carolina, to talk about energy transition on campus. The UNC Climate Action Plan is a list of environmental goals the University hopes to achieve within a given time frame, which was discussed at the meeting. 

The town hall featured a panel of representatives from several organizations who spoke about the progress in the University’s energy initiatives.

Melanie Elliot, the sustainability analyst of Sustainable Carolina, presented the district energy model, which explains the distribution of steam, hot water and chilled water, as a potential energy source for some campus buildings. UNC has its own cogeneration facility, which produces electricity through steam for the campus and University Hospitals, supplied through over 45 miles of steam pipes underground.

She said this is a more efficient system because it requires less fuel than each building having its own unit.

Other parts of the University's ongoing plan are smaller, such as swapping regular light bulbs for LED alternatives and installing occupancy sensors in University buildings to reduce energy consumption. Similarly, some UNC athletic facilities may begin scheduling lighting and air conditioning around event times, Elliott said.

Through initiatives such as the cogeneration facility, the University has reduced its coal use at the cogeneration plant by 54 percent since 2007. Previously, there was a proposal to stop campus coal use by 2020, but due to a lack of available renewable resources to turn to, this was not possible, Piehler said. 

The program also faces budget constraints because it is not a private organization. Piehler said they have to do thorough calculations to prevent overspending on the state budget.  

“We have articulated goals, we have metrics that we’re tracking them by and we also recognize that we have work that remains to be done," he said. "We’re far from perfect, but we have a plan and we are implementing it."

Moving Forward

Piehler said Sustainable Carolina plans to “intentionally connect" with the University's research, education and service missions by allowing students to participate in the initiative.

The Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, RESPC, is a student organization that plans energy education projects and applies funds collected from student fees towards energy efficiency. 

Every tuition-paying UNC student — undergraduate and graduate — pays four dollars per semester as part of their tuition for the renewable energy funds, known as the Student Renewable Energy fee shown in Connect Carolina. 

Senior Ideliya Khismatova, the co-chairperson of RESPC, said at the town hall that one recent project is the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Curtis Media Center, which opened last year.

Other members of RESPC, like sophomore Nea Strawn, also attended the meeting and said that more awareness about the climate action plan could boost morale about progress.

“This is achievable," she said. "Net zero is not some unattainable goal."


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